Published in the July 18, 2019 edition.
By MARK SARDELLA
How do you do it?” is a question I am frequently asked. “How do you sit through all those boring government meetings?”
I should probably say that I selflessly attend these meetings in order to be your eyes and ears. I should say that I go to these meetings so that you don’t have to.
The truth is, I do it for the entertainment. It’s like live theater, or these days, soap opera, and not just because meetings are televised.
For sheer entertainment, the Town Council currently offers the best value. It can’t yet hold a candle to some of the cage matches that broke out at the old Board of Selectmen meetings back in the early 2000s, but give it time.
Don’t let the surface civility of the Town Council fool you. There are simmering tensions waiting to be plumbed for dramatic, and sometimes unexpected, effect.
For example, early in their June 24 meeting they debated making an approximately 50-yard stretch of Common Street one-way, heading south, since the vast majority of traffic on that part of Common Street is southbound already.
Flipping the script, it was the new Woke Wing of the Town Council that argued against change and in favor of maintaining the status quo. Who knew that conserving two-way streets was a social justice cause? In the end, Chairman Ed Dombroski, Paul DiNocco, Peter May and Ann Santos voted for the change, while Julie Smith-Galvin, Mehreen Butt and Jonathan Chines wanted to keep things the way they are.
It was just a preview of things to come much later, provided you had enough No-Doze to get you to the end of the meeting.
It was worth the wait. Before heading into their reduced summer meeting schedule, the Town Council ended its season finale episode with a bang, demonstrating that no issue is so trivial that it cannot be micromanaged, and no molehill is so small that it cannot be made into a mountain and mined for dramatic gold.
There are several routine, recurring items that appear on every meeting agenda. Of all the routine and mundane items on Town Council agendas, none is more routine and mundane than the report of the warrant signer.
Warrants are the method by which municipalities pay their bills. For every bill to be paid, the Town Accountant creates a warrant item and the Town Council authorizes the Treasurer to pay it.
This process is so humdrum that years ago the Board of Selectmen/Town Council decided to assign one member the chore of going to Town Hall to sign the warrants and report back at the next board meeting if there was anything notable, which there never is, since it’s essentially a legal formality. The money has already been appropriated by the town to be spent for the designated purposes.
Each year, at their first meeting following the Town Election, the Town Council chooses a new chairman and vice chairman. At this meeting they also appoint a warrant signer. It doesn’t offer the glamor of the other two positions, but somebody has to do it.
At the end of the Town Council’s June 24 meeting, warrant signer Paul DiNocco provided his summary.
“I reviewed the warrants. We’re spending a lot of money. It’s keeping us afloat. No highlights of note in this batch,” DiNocco said. “Next batch, we’ll see if there’s anything more entertaining,” he added, attempting to inject a touch of levity into a lackluster subject.
But Councilor Jonathan Chines wasn’t amused.
“It would be helpful going forward to have a list of the warrants approved,” he said.
DiNocco wasn’t exactly sure what Chines was requesting, noting that each warrant can have numerous line items.
Chines said that he wanted the full board to get a line item summary of the warrants at every meeting.
“It’s more from a process control standpoint,” he explained, somewhat cryptically. Key word: control.
Town Administrator Steve Maio tried to explain that the warrants encompass every single bill that the town pays, including weekly payroll.
“It’s voluminous,” he cautioned.
Things went back and forth like this for several minutes, with DiNocco and Maio trying to elicit from Chines, without much success, exactly what it was that he wanted.
Finally, Chairman Ed Dombroski asked Chines to “come back and define more specifically what you think would make the most sense.”
But DiNocco had another idea, since it was becoming clear that Chines was unwilling to rely on DiNocco to scrutinize and report on the warrants.
“Make Mr. Chines the warrant signer and that would alleviate the problem,” DiNocco said. He then went a step further, making a motion to put the warrants in front of all seven members at every meeting and eliminate the warrant signer altogether.
“That’s what he wants,” DiNocco said. “Give it to him.”
Maio tried to play the role of the peacemaker, but DiNocco wasn’t finished.
“Mr. Chairman, withdraw me as the signer of the warrants,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to accommodate Mr. Chines and the degree of information that he is looking for.”
Chines maintained that he wasn’t asking DiNocco to do anything different, merely requesting that every Town Councilor receive a summary of all the warrants prior to each meeting.
The matter was left unresolved as the meeting drew to a close – a cliffhanger, if you will. If this is what happens when the issue is warrant signing, it’s going to be an entertaining year.